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The full demise of Rolling Stone’s rape story

Protesters outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia last month. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP)
Protesters outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia last month. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via Associated Press)

Even as Rolling Stone’s Nov. 19 story “A Rape on Campus” unraveled last week, the magazine claimed that writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely did her due diligence in investigating an alleged gang rape on Sept. 28, 2012, at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia that had victimized a then-freshman by the name of Jackie. “Dozens” of Jackie’s friends, Rolling Stone told this blog, had spoken with Erdely for the story — some off the record, some on the record.

“Dozens,” of course, means 24-plus.

As a second heavily reported story by Washington Post’s local staff has revealed, however, Erdely’s reportorial sweep didn’t net three rather critical friends. “Randall,” “Cindy” and “Andy” were identified in the Rolling Stone piece as three eager helpers who came to Jackie’s aid on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, when she allegedly experienced a traumatic situation. The three told The Post that the story reported by Rolling Stone doesn’t match what Jackie told them that night.*

And perhaps most critically, the latest revelation from The Post casts either account into doubt, as the man that Jackie cited as her date that night appears not to have been a student at the University of Virginia.

It all raises a mind-boggling possibility: that Erdely made an exhaustive effort to interview peripheral sources, leaving no time for the central ones. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Rolling Stone for an inventory of the friends interviewed by Erdely, as well as other information about the reporting. That’s an extravagant request — but presumably Rolling Stone is already compiling such a file, if it’s serious about figuring out how it produced the shoddiest piece of journalism in recent memory. We haven’t heard back from the magazine.

The specifics of The Post’s latest story, titled “U-Va. students challenge Rolling Stone account of alleged sexual assault,” deliver bad news to Rolling Stone on two levels. For starters, the story upends the specifics of what Rolling Stone reported. Not only did the nature of the sexual assault alleged in “A Rape on Campus” not align with what Jackie told the three friends that night, but The Post reports that the man who was reportedly Jackie’s date that night “hasn’t been to Charlottesville for at least six years,” he says.

Publications can be excused for getting things wrong; that happens all the time. What’s inexcusable, however, is that in this case, Rolling Stone did nothing to stave off catastrophic error. As The Post reports, the friends were “never contacted or interviewed by the pop culture magazine’s reporters or editors,” meaning that neither Erdely nor the magazine’s fact-checkers lifted a finger to check with the story’s most obvious source of corroboration. In a “note to readers” following the collapse of the story, Rolling Stone acknowledged that it didn’t attempt to contact the alleged assailants in deference to the wishes of Jackie.

What’s the excuse for the failure to reach the friends? We’ve asked for an explanation on this front as well.

Behold the mammoth deception grilled into the Rolling Stone piece itself. In a paragraph outlining Jackie’s concerns about seeing the Rolling Stone article published, Erdely writes, “Greek life is huge at UVA, with nearly one-third of undergrads belonging to a fraternity or sorority, so Jackie fears the backlash could be big – a “s[—]show” predicted by her now-former friend Randall, who, citing his loyalty to his own frat, declined to be interviewed.”

Any consumer of journalism would conclude that Erdely had contacted “Randall” in an attempt to get his side of the story (just as any consumer of journalism would conclude that a reporter describing the attire, demeanor and statements of a man in a jail’s visitors hall was in the room with him). Yet “Randall” tells The Post that “he was never contacted by Rolling Stone and would have agreed to an interview.” So just how did this fellow “decline”?

Rolling Stone’s “note to our readers” — an apology for reportorial mistakes — makes this astonishing admission: “A friend of Jackie’s (who we were told would not speak to Rolling Stone) told the Washington Post that he found Jackie that night a mile from the school’s fraternities. She did not appear to be ‘physically injured at the time’ but was shaken.” Who was it that told this to Rolling Stone? We’re awaiting an answer from the magazine.

Mike Semel, the local editor of the Washington Post, says the Rolling Stone story gave his reporters a lot to follow up on. The paper’s Metro section, of course, doesn’t employ a bunch of media critics; it has long covered campus goings-on at U-Va., and that’s where the focus started out. “When the Rolling Stone story hit, it immediately became part of our coverage, to see what the campus response was going to be,” he says. As for investigating the specifics of the incident alleged in the Rolling Stone account, Semel says, “We wanted to find out what happened so we could gauge the university’s response…We didn’t set out to discredit anybody.”

The latest Post installment outlines a complicated set of interactions among the friends. Semel explains: “We all agreed that the people she reached out to that night would have the best perspective on the university’s response. They were an untapped source that would have most firsthand knowledge.” Bold text added for a reason: Semel avoided directly addressing Rolling Stone’s actions, deferring such questions to media critics. That said, his comment that these friends remained an “untapped source” days after Rolling Stone ran the story is a devastating piece of accidental media criticism.

Laziness would be the charitable explanation as to why these friends weren’t contacted by Rolling Stone. As we’ve written in this space, Erdely’s mission appears to have been to present as sensational and damaging an account of fraternity excesses as she could gather. To have interviewed these three pivotal sources would have meant inviting the story’s demise.

Awful journalism can either be exposed by editors before publication or by competitors after publication. Semel breaks it all down: “Jackie certainly exists and Jackie certainly had a story to tell and certainly Jackie’s friends believe that something happened to her that night. And again, I have nothing to say that nothing happened to her and I believe something did. And if that something is relevant to our inquiry holding the university accountable, then we’ll continue to report that out too.”

*Correction: This post has been updated to delete a poorly worded sentence carrying an implication that the Erik Wemple Blog didn’t intend to convey. Thanks to @juliacarriew for reading closely:

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